The area premiere of a new Alan Ayckbourn play is always cause for excitement. He is arguably the most proficient writer of comedies in English. He is certainly the most prolific. His 2008 play “Life and Beth,” running at Theatre in the Round, is his 71st, and the first written after a serious stroke.
It is Christmas Eve, the first holiday since Beth Timms lost her husband, Gordon. She is surrounded by her family — sister-in-law, Connie; son, Martin, and his girlfriend, Ella — along with the vicar, David. They all assume that she is incapable of taking care of herself, and their attempts to care for her are oppressive. Even more maddening, Gordon’s ghost appears to her, as overbearing as he was in life.
Ayckbourn acknowledges that this is his homage to Noel Coward’s “Blithe Spirit.” It’s not one of his strongest efforts, but still with enough of his time-honored wit and sparkling farce to inspire more than a few laughs, although it does rather peter out at the end.
This is the fifth Ayckbourn play that director Dann Peterson has staged at Theatre in the Round. He is experienced at handling the light comedy, balancing the outrageousness of some of the characters with some real gravitas around bereavement. If the balance tends toward the far-fetched, that is the playwright more than him.
Peterson’s one misstep is his handling of the ghost. He quotes Ayckbourn: “I think other than making people laugh, the greatest reward in theater is to make people jump.” No one jumped during this evening. There is nothing shocking or even surprising about the ghost, nothing at all supernatural about him.
At the center of the ensemble is Jean Wolff, who is spot-on as Beth. Hers is an understated portrayal, subtly underplaying the sharp-edged sarcasm about her family. Her evocation of Beth’s grief gave the play much-needed heart.
As Connie, Janice Stone is a symphony of insensitive selfishness, made palatable by her over-extravagant comic performance. David Rinzema’s success as Gordon can be measured in how insufferable and annoying his character is. As Martin, Josef Buchel is just as comically domineering.
Throughout, Wolff remains the calm center of this comedic hurricane. She grounds all the silliness, which results in an evening of charming good humor.
William Randall Beard writes regularly about theater.